Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday warned a lawyers' professional association that it should stay out of politics, while calling on civil society organizations to disband if they cross political "red lines" laid down by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
"Professional organizations should engage in activities related to their professions ... but if they get hijacked or taken over by politics, then the Hong Kong government will have no choice but to terminate its relationship with that organization," Lam told reporters.
"If politics is allowed to override professionalism, including at the Law Society, then the government will consider terminating the relationship," she said.
The Hong Kong government has typically sought legal opinions from both the Law Society, which represents solicitors, and the Bar Association, which represents barristers, during consultation exercises.
The professional bodies also play a role in recommending legal professionals for certain top jobs in statutory bodies or consultancies.
But Lam's comments came after the CCP's official mouthpiece, the People's Daily, referred to the Law Society as a "running rat," warning it not to allow itself to get "politicized" ahead of Aug. 24 leadership elections.
The paper warned the Law Society in an editorial that it should "draw a clear line" between itself and "anti-China elements" to avoid meeting the same fate as the Professional Teachers' Union (PTU), which disbanded last week after being criticized in CCP-backed media.
Lam also extended a warning to other civil organizations, following the dissolution of protest march organizers the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) on Sunday.
"We have seen organizations and individuals crossing these red lines. In my opinion, the only choice at this point is disbandment,” she said, warning that organizations that disband could still face criminal prosecution under a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the CCP from July 1, 2020.
In April, Lam also targeted the Bar Association, whose chairman Paul Harris has been labeled "anti-China" by Beijing officials for criticizing jail terms handed down to opposition politicians.
The Law Society said it is, and continues to be, politically neutral.
"We are in constant communication with relevant governmental departments, expressing opinion to improve the practice environment and regularly responds, from the legal perspective, to consultations on different issues," Law Society President Melissa Pang said.
Ivan Choy, senior politics lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said the dissolution of the CHRF likely spelled the end of large-scale political mobilization in the city.
"I think the government is happy to see fewer voices of opposition," he said in response to the demise of the CHRF. "For every group that disbands, that's one less they have to deal with."
He said the fact that such organizations are expected to disband following denunciation in the Chinese media was a form of "white terror."
The CHRF, which once organized annual mass rallies on July 1 marking the 1997 handover of the city to Beijing, announced it would disband at the weekend following repeated denunciations in CCP-backed media.
The front, which was never registered as an organization, served as a communication platform for civil society groups to promote human rights and democratic freedom in Hong Kong, according to its Facebook page.
Its job was mostly to organize large-scale, peaceful protest marches to ensure that citizens' voices were heard, it said. Police have warned that a criminal investigation is still under way.
Hong Kong's biggest teaching union, the Professional Teachers' Union (PTU), announced it was disbanding on Aug. 10, after being described as a "malignant tumor" in need of eradication by CCP mouthpiece the People's Daily.
The Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) has said it fears it could be next on the government's blacklist of civil groups, along with the pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU).
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Cheng Yut Yiu and Kay Lee.